Residents seek to have Zoning Board resolution annulled

WEST ORANGE, NJ — Sai Hira Ram Trust Inc., which received approval from the West Orange Zoning Board to construct a Hindu house of worship at 23 Laurel Ave. — much to the concern of neighboring residents — has failed to demolish the property’s existing single-family home within the 90-day timeframe specified by the board.

The Zoning Board’s resolution required the nonprofit Sai Hira Ram Trust to tear down the building and remove all debris within 90 days of Oct. 15, 2015, or the document would be rendered “null and void.” But the Jan. 13 deadline passed without the start of demolition and, according to West Orange technical assistant Margaret Imperiale, the trust has not yet received the permit to demolish the structure, which is required from the building department.

Still, the resolution is not necessarily revoked, and Zoning Board attorney Alice Beirne said a decision in the matter has not yet been made.

“It needs to be addressed, but those facts are not yet before the Zoning Board,” Beirne told the West Orange Chronicle in a Jan. 15 phone interview. “Someone has to formally bring it to their attention.”

The board’s agenda for its Jan. 21 meeting did not include an item to address the situation as of press time Jan. 19. Board Chairman Bruce Buechler did not comment on the matter to the Chronicle, as per board policy.

As for why demolition has not begun, Beirne said West Orange Zoning official Geniece Gary-Adams told her that matters involving PSE&G beyond the Trust’s control were holding things up, and that the 90-day time period was “unreasonable.” She also said the board could grant an extension to that deadline if the Trust applies for one.

Trust secretary Anita Thani, who signed the zoning application on behalf of the nonprofit and property owner Sun King Private Limited, declined to comment for this article.

But several residents living near 23 Laurel Ave., who have asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, said they hope the board will follow through with nullifying the resolution. One man whose residence is particularly close to the building in question told the Chronicle that the house, which the resolution itself said “appears to be structurally unsound,” has become dangerous for him and his family to live near, saying that shingles have flown off its roof and into his yard on windy days.

And though the roof was recently wrapped after he notified the township, he said there should be no excuse for why the structure has not yet been demolished.

“If they didn’t (submit all paperwork) on Oct. 16, that’s their fault,” the resident said in a Jan. 14 phone interview, emphasizing his belief that the Trust should have started the demolition process right after the resolution was passed Oct. 15. “That should be on them — it shouldn’t be reflected on residents who suffer living next to this safety hazard.

“I just don’t want to fear for my life or my family members’ when I’m in my own home,” he said.

The resident also pointed out that Thani had assured him the building would be demolished immediately. If the board does grant an extension, he said he would be in favor of the neighbors taking legal action to overturn it.

But the demolition issue was not the only matter residents have complained to the Zoning Board and township about recently. One woman urged Mayor Robert Parisi to have the resolution voided and the board investigated due to the fact that the document contained an incorrect statement — namely that township public advocate Harvey Grossman had questioned witnesses and offered comment, when Grossman was not actually involved with the case. Another man questioned why board member Irv Schwarzbaum was allowed to vote on the resolution after joining the board a few months into the hearing process.

Beirne said she included the incorrect statement accidentally, and the board will vote to remove that portion of the document during the Jan. 21 board meeting in addition to voting on a request for a rehearing and a request for a revote on a previous rehearing request that was denied. The attorney added that Schwarzbaum was eligible to vote on the matter since Zoning Board bylaws allow members to do so if they have read the transcripts from all meetings they had missed, which he did.

Yet the resident who raised the latter issue said he thinks that provision should be meant for members who miss one meeting in the midst of several they did attend, not for those who entered a hearing process late. He said he does not believe a new member such as Schwarzbaum, who missed the first two official hearings on the issue in January and February 2015, plus a previous hearing in September 2014 that was later discounted, could have voted with a full knowledge of the situation and residents’ concerns without experiencing every meeting in person.

“If you weren’t present throughout the process, there’s no way you could get caught up to speed and vote with a clear conscience,” the second resident alleged in a Jan. 15 phone interview. “Reading a transcript, you don’t hear the tone, you don’t hear the inflection, you don’t get the feeling of what was really said. There’s a lot that’s missed just by reading transcripts.”

Aside from those issues, many neighbors of 23 Laurel Ave. want the township to launch an investigation into the Zoning Board’s actions regarding what they believe was an improper handling of the Sai Hira Ram Trust application. Those interviewed by the Chronicle said they think the board put the Trust before residents in approving the resolution without giving enough credence to their concerns.

A third resident listed the following examples of concerns: the board refused to restart the hearing process when residents complained that not enough notice had been given for the initial September 2014 meeting, only doing so after one neighbor’s lawyer threatened legal action; the board did not insist on having a representative from the Trust answer residents’ questions on the nonprofit’s background or intentions, such as the nature of the British Virgin Islands-incorporated and Dubai-based Sun King; and the board passed the resolution without looking into why Thani had signed for both the Trust and Sun King.

This resident said the neighbors think the board handled matters “poorly” and rewarded the Trust’s “un-neighborly” behavior, and that an outside party should look into why the Trust’s application was approved.

“I think it happened because the board members had a certain agenda in mind,” the third resident said in a Jan. 17 email. “They didn’t seem to care about the residents of West Orange.”

The woman who brought the issue of the inaccurate statement to the township’s attention also said that approving the application was not in West Orange’s best interests. In addition to the previously noted concerns, she thinks constructing a large temple on a county road with hours of operation that include the afternoon rush hours between 4 and 8 p.m. will only cause an influx of traffic to the area. Plus, she said the variance for only 48 parking spaces was approved — the building code requires 86 for a property of the size proposed — means multiple vehicles could be forced to park on adjacent roads. Also, the Trust does not have a permit to worship and once had a vagrant living in the building — which the Trust’s own expert witnesses mentioned during the hearings — two facts that are unacceptable to her, she said.

“In my opinion, the group should have been turned down merely for its illegal activities,” a fourth resident said in a Jan. 18 email. “What kind of message does this send to the people of West Orange? That you should break the law?”

Beirne previously told the Chronicle that the Zoning Board does not have the authority to compel people to testify, adding that the residents should have formally requested the board to subpoena a Trust representative if they wanted one to speak. The counsel also said she received an affidavit from Sun King stating that Thani did have the permission to sign on behalf of both entities. Overall, Beirne said she believes the board acted properly throughout the hearing process.

Additionally, the resolution states that the application was approved because the Trust had adequately satisfied the criteria for granting setback and parking variances, effectively redesigned the project to address some of the board’s and neighbors’ concerns, and demonstrated that a temple will be an “inherently beneficial” use of the property. In all, the document said there will be no “substantial detriment” to the public, zoning code or township master plan.

Meanwhile, Parisi said the township has no plans to launch an official investigation into the Zoning Board since the board is an autonomous body with the legal authority to govern itself. The mayor did say he had met with some residents in an attempt to address their concerns, but understands if they choose to take legal action.

“There have been some concerns about the process, and the administration will continue to talk through that,” Parisi told the Chronicle in a Jan. 15 phone interview. “But I respect residents’ concerns over applications that don’t go their way and certainly respect their concerns if they want to take legal action to try to reverse that.

“The administration would certainly support any resident’s right to appeal an application,” he said.

Zoning Board appeals typically must be filed with the New Jersey Superior Court within 45 days after a resolution is published, though courts do have the authority to overlook the deadline if the circumstances warrant it.

Regarding the demolition issue, Parisi said the township legal department is reviewing the situation and discussing it with Beirne and Buechler, but the final decision on the matter will ultimately be up to the Zoning Board.